C Gino Gradkowski, DT Paul Soliai, S Trenton Robinson.
Early Draft Picks:
DT Vernon Butler, CB James Bradberry, CB Daryl Worley, CB Zack Sanchez. Panthers Rookie Forecast Offseason Losses:
OT Nate Chandler, C Fernando Velasco, DT Dwan Edwards, CB Charles Tillman, S Roman Harper, P Brad Nortman.
2016 Carolina Panthers Offense:
The Panthers had the most explosive offense in the NFL in the regular season, thanks mostly to MVP Cam Newton. They continued to score easily in the playoffs, posting 31 and 49 against the Seahawks and Cardinals, respectively. However, they were limited to just 10 points in the Super Bowl. Was it just arrogance stemming from the fact that Carolina believed it could easily defeat the underdog Broncos? Perhaps, but a greater reason is that the liabilities the Panthers have on this side of the ball were exposed.
The two tackles were horrible versus Denver. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were seen as the weakest starters on the roster entering the season, but they weren't tested very much because Carolina somehow avoided teams ranked in the top 10 of sacks. That includes its playoff battles as well - until the Broncos, who easily manufactured sacks. Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware abused Oher and Remmers mercilessly, and entering this offseason, it was clear that Carolina would have to do something about the position.
Unfortunately for Newton, no tackles were added this spring. In fact, Oher was given a massive extension for some strange reason, so he will continue to be the blind-side protector. However, Daryl Williams, a 2015 fourth-rounder, could displace Remmers. Williams barely played last year, but he can't possibly be worse of a player than his counterpart.
All isn't lost in terms of the offensive line, however. The Panthers are much better inside. In fact, they have one of the top interior offensive fronts in the NFL. Andrew Norwell and Trai Turner were both excellent last year, while Ryan Kalil is one of the best centers in the entire league. All three players will reprise their roles from this past season.
Though the offensive line hasn't changed, the Panthers figure to be better on this side of the ball this upcoming season. That's because they'll have Kelvin Benjamin back from injury. Benjamin, the team's top receiver, missed all of 2015 because of a torn ACL. It's truly remarkable that Newton was able to claim the MVP award without Benjamin, and it's also scary to think how much more lethal he'll be with his talented, 6-foot-5 wideout.
Benjamin is just one Pro Bowl-caliber player Newton will be able to throw to this year. The other is Greg Olsen, one of the better tight ends in the NFL. Olsen is coming off a career year in which he caught 77 passes for 1,104 yards and seven touchdowns. His numbers are bound to decline in 2016 with Benjamin back, but Olsen will still be as dangerous as ever. He and Benjamin will make things easier for Newton's other targets, including Ted Ginn, Philly Brown and 2015 second-rounder Devin Funchess, who didn't get to do much as a rookie. Funchess caught 31 balls, but figures to have more of a role in 2016. He has been a star at OTAs.
Meanwhile, the running game will remain the same. For the second year in a row, Jonathan Stewart got off to a slow start, but exploded following the bye. Perhaps that'll happen again - Carolina has a Week 7 bye - but what is quite apparent is that Stewart won't play all 16 games. Stewart missed six contests in the past two years combined and played just 15 total games the two seasons prior to that. If he misses time again, 2015 fifth-rounder Cameron Artis-Payne will handle the workload. Artis-Payne gained 4.1 yards per carry as a rookie, exactly matching Stewart's figure.
2016 Carolina Panthers Defense:
The Panthers had a shocking offseason, and it had nothing to do with the team's failure to upgrade the offensive tackle position. Rather, Carolina inexplicably released Josh Norman after offering their All-Pro cornerback the franchise tag earlier in the spring.
It was perhaps the most inexplicable thing to happen in free agency since the Elvis Dumervil fax machine incident. Norman is arguably the top cornerback in the NFL right now, and Carolina dismissing him because of a contract dispute is utterly appalling. The Panthers already had some issues at cornerback, given that aging Charles Tillman was also a free agent. The Panthers had next to nothing at the position entering the draft, which would explain why they spent three of their first four choices on cornerbacks. Carolina selected two tall, long corners who tested well at the Combine in James Bradberry and Daryl Worley and then took a flier on Zack Sanchez, perhaps the polar opposite of Bradberry and Worley. At least one of them will pan out, but it'll be a difficult learning curve, given that they'll have to battle Julio Jones, Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks in six games as rookies.
Cornerback is the weakest part of Carolina's defense by far. Even the safety spot, which wasn't a strength at all last year, is much better. Kurt Coleman enjoyed an excellent season, and unlike Norman, he'll be back. His partner, Roman Harper, wasn't as good. Harper is no longer on the roster, however, as he'll be replaced by Tre Boston, who was solid in relief last year.
The Panthers didn't really lose anyone else this offseason unless Dwan Edwards counts. Edwards shouldn't, as he performed horribly as a depth defensive tackle last year. Besides, Carolina used its first-round pick on Vernon Butler anyway. Butler is a highly athletic lineman who reminded some of Muhammad Wilkerson. He'll eventually start once Star Lotulelei moves on. Lotulelei is a quality run-stuffer, but pales in comparison to Kawann Short, who is a terrific interior player. Short does it all; he plays the run very well and does an even better job of putting heat on the quarterback.
While Short is the best player Carolina has up front, Charles Johnson isn't too far behind. Johnson had a mediocre regular season because he was bothered by a hamstring injury, but he should have a big bounce-back campaign if healthy. Johnson will start across from Kony Ealy, who will step into the lineup in the wake of Jared Allen's retirement. Ealy didn't perform well in the regular season, but had a huge performance in the Super Bowl, registering three sacks.
Of course, Carolina's best overall player on this side of the ball is Luke Kuechly. Arguably the best linebacker in the NFL, Kuechly had an incredible season, and at 25, he's just entering the prime of his career. He'll be accompanied by two talented linebackers, Shaq Thompson and Thomas Davis. The latter has been a great player for a long time, while Thompson looked great in limited action this past season. He'll continue to be a two-down player until Davis retires or leaves via free agency. Thomas, 33, is set to hit the open market after the 2017 campaign.
2016 Carolina Panthers Schedule and Intangibles:
The Panthers needed to develop a strong homefield advantage. They were a mediocre 20-22 as hosts in the past five seasons prior to 2015. Problem solved: They were a perfect 10-0 as hosts last year.
Graham Gano has been a solid kicker over the past four years. He hit 30-of-36 attempts in 2015, including 2-of-4 from beyond 50. He missed three of his 59 extra points.
Brad Nortman was 17th in net punting average last year, but he left via free agency. Carolina no longer has a proven punter, as the job will be up for grabs between Swayze Waters and Michael Palardy.
Carolina had arguably the worst special teams in the NFL in 2014. Punt returns and coverage were better, but the Panthers were still outgained by a ridiculous 8.1 yards on kickoffs.
The Panthers had a very easy schedule last year. That won't be the case in 2016, but they don't have a taxing slate either. They have to battle the Seahawks, Cardinals, Broncos, Chiefs and Vikings as non-divisional foes, but they also get the 49ers, Rams and Chargers (home).
2016 Carolina Panthers Rookies:
Go here for the Panthers Rookie Forecast, a page with predictions like which rookie will bust and which rookie will become a solid starter.
2016 Carolina Panthers Analysis: The Panthers stand to benefit from Kelvin Benjamin's return, but there are a few reasons why they won't be 15-1 (or better) again. First, they'll have to endure a much tougher schedule than last year's cake walk. Second, Josh Norman's gone, so the secondary will struggle as a result. And third, everyone will be gunning for Carolina; the team will see every opponent's best effort. That said, it's still very likely that the Panthers will win the division, and it shouldn't surprise anyone if they ultimately play in the Super Bowl again.
Goals Entering the 2016 NFL Draft: In a surprising turn of events, the Panthers lost Josh Norman after franchising him earlier in the offseason. They already needed a cornerback, so now two should be drafted. However, this doesn't necessarily mean that they'll take one in the first couple of rounds. With so other few needs, Carolina can focus on taking the best player available, though a tackle should be obtained at some point.
2016 NFL Draft Accomplishments: It was not a surprise at all to see the Panthers stay true to their board on Thursday night. They could've taken a cornerback or tackle at the end of the first round, but opted for Vernon Butler instead. Butler doesn't fill an immediate need, but he'll figure to be a great rotational player until Star Lotulelei moves on, allowing him to become the full-time starter. Butler, who has drawn comparisons to Muhammad Wilkerson, was just too good to pass up.
The Panthers took a trio of corners after that, and understandably so. None of them were outstanding prospects, but two were solid (Daryl Worley, Zack Sanchez). The other was chosen a bit too early (James Bradberry), but the Samford product possesses elite athleticism, so the sky's the limit for him.
Carolina had a good draft overall, but needs to be punished a bit for not addressing the offensive tackle position whatsoever. Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were finally exposed in the Super Bowl, and at least one had to be upgraded. Part of the issue was having only four picks (excluding the seventh round), and that occurred because Carolina moved up for Worley, which was not a good decision.
Had the Panthers taken a tackle at some point, I probably would've given them at least a "B." They didn't, however, so because of that, as well as the trade, they get downgraded to a C+.
NFL Draft Individual Grades:
30. Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech A Grade
Part of the reason many mocks had the Panthers selecting Kevin Dodd was because their front office typically takes the best player available, and there wasn't an obvious spot for Kevin Dodd. It would've made sense to take Dodd here, but Vernon Butler is an even better choice. Butler could've easily been chosen a dozen picks ago. He's very athletic for a 320-pound defensive lineman and has drawn comparisons to Muhammad Wilkerson. Butler doesn't fit an obvious need right now, but the Panthers aren't concerned about that. Butler, however, figures to start in 2017 once Star Lotulelei moves on in free agency. In the meantime, Butler will add depth to an already-great front.
62. James Bradberry, CB, Samford C+ Grade
The Panthers are not the team I thought would take James Bradberry. The Seahawks, Buccaneers, Falcons etc. seemed like the likely home for him. Bradberry is the type of tall, long, athletic corner that Seattle typically takes in the middle rounds, and I thought they might in the third frame. However, this is too early for Bradberry, who is pretty raw.
77. Daryl Worley, CB, West Virginia B Grade
I'm sensing a theme here. The Panthers took a tall, long cornerback in the second round, and they did the same thing with Daryl Worley at this juncture. Worley was seen as a third-round prospect by most of the contacts we had spoken to, so the range makes sense. He obviously fills a need as well.
141. Zack Sanchez, CB, Oklahoma: B+ Grade
This is very unlike the other two cornerback selections the Panthers have made in this draft. While James Bradberry and Daryl Worley are tall, long corners with athleticism, Zack Sanchez is a short corner who did not test well at the Combine, but he still could've been selected a bit earlier than this. It might seem odd that the Panthers are devoting so much attention to the position, but it was a big need.
252. Beau Sandland, TE, Montana State: B+ Grade
It's not out of the question that Beau Sandland could be Carolina's starting tight end following the 2019 offseason, when Greg Olsen will be a 34-year-old free agent. I say that because Sandland, while raw, has extreme upside, thanks to his elite athleticism. Sandland enjoyed a great 2015 campaign for Montana State, but doesn't have a great track record of production. Of course, Sandland may not make the final roster, but the potential is there for him to make an impact.
The Panthers dominated in the playoffs leading up to the Super Bowl, but they fell flat in the final game, perhaps because they had two weeks to hear about how they were going to win. The bad news is that Carolina will have a tougher schedule next year by default, making 15-1 unlikely again. The good news is that Kelvin Benjamin will return, providing a much-needed boost for Cam Newton, who had no one reliable to throw to besides Greg Olsen.
Panthers rescind contract of CB Josh Norman
Panthers re-sign DT Kyle Love
Panthers sign S Trenton Robinson
Panthers sign DT Paul Soliai
Panthers sign C Gino Gradkowski
Panthers re-sign FB Mike Tolbert
Panthers re-sign DE Charles Johnson
Panthers re-sign WR/QB Joe Webb
Panthers cut OT Nate Chandler
Panthers re-sign G Chris Scott
Panthers cut DT Dwan Edwards
Panthers cut DE Charles Johnson
Two Offensive Tackles: Michael Oher and Mike Remmers were never really challenged throughout the season, as the Panthers somehow avoided all the teams with the best pass rushes. The two tackles were exposed in the Super Bowl. Early-round picks and free-agent signings should be used to upgrade this area.
Cornerback: Josh Norman is one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL, but the Panthers had to use old men like Charles Tillman and Cortland Finnegan across from him. That can't continue. An early-round choice should be used on a corner.
Defensive End: Charles Johnson was cut as a cap casualty, so the Panthers will have to find a new starter across from Kony Ealy. Re-signed Charles Johnson
Safety: The other liability in Carolina's secondary is safety Roman Harper, who continues to slow down. He'll need to be upgraded.
Wide Receiver: Kelvin Benjamin's return will be huge. Devin Funchess will get better. However, the Panthers could use a reliable third receiver. Ted Ginn is not the answer.
Defensive Tackle Depth: Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short will be hitting free agency shortly, so keeping both will be difficult. Solid depth is needed now, but a starter down the road will have to be found. Signed Paul Soliai
Running Back Depth: Some depth behind Jonathan Stewart wouldn't hurt, but perhaps Cameron Artis-Payne will step up.
Fullback: Mike Tolbert is an impending free agent who could be re-signed. Re-signed Mike Tolbert
Punter: Brad Nortman is an average punter, but like Tolbert, he'll be hitting the market shortly.
Paul Soliai, NT, Falcons. Age: 32. Signed with Panthers (2 years, $7 million)
Paul Soliai is no longer the force he once was, but he's still a very solid rotational run-plugger. He'll turn 33 in December, but he might be able to put together another quality season or two.
Trenton Robinson, S, Redskins. Age: 27. -- Signed with Panthers
Gino Gradkowski, C, Falcons. Age: 28. -- Signed with Panthers
Carolina Panthers Free Agents:
Salary Cap: TBA.
Josh Norman, CB, Panthers. Age: 28. Signed with Redskins (5 years, $75 million)
Josh Norman gets a ton of hype as one of the top cornerbacks in the NFL. There's no denying that he's great, as he's excellent in coverage, but he has some tackling issues. Having said that, Deion Sanders also struggled to tackle, so it's not the worst weakness for a corner to have. Update: The Panthers have rescinded Norman's contract, making him an unrestricted free agent.
Charles Johnson, DE, Panthers. Age: 30. Re-signed with Panthers (1 year, $3 million)
Charles Johnson being cut would've been shocking news a year ago. However, he's coming off a lost season in which he collected just one sack. That wasn't the real Johnson though, as he missed half the year with a hamstring injury and was never the same once he returned. Johnson, who turns 30 in July, could have a couple more dominant seasons left in the tank. He's a tremendous player when healthy.
Mike Tolbert, FB, Panthers. Age: 30. Re-signed with Panthers
A quality blocker, Mike Tolbert is capable of picking up the needed yardage in goal-line situations. He also caught 18 passes in 2015.
Amini Silatolu, G, Panthers. Age: 27.
Amini Silatolu is a talented guard, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy. Silatolu has two torn ACLs in the past three years.
Fernando Velasco, C, Panthers. Age: 31. -- Signed with Bills
Brad Nortman, P, Panthers. Age: 26. -- Signed with Jaguars (4 years)
Chris Scott, G, Panthers. Age: 29. -- Re-signed with Panthers
Charles Tillman, CB, Panthers. Age: 35.
Kyle Love, DT, Panthers. Age: 29. -- Re-signed with Panthers
Frank Alexander, DE, Panthers. Age: 26.
Dwan Edwards, DT, Panthers. Age: 35.
Brenton Bersin (RFA), WR, Panthers. Age: 26.
Joe Webb, WR/QB, Panthers. Age: 29. -- Re-signed with Panthers
Stephen Hill (RFA), WR, Panthers. Age: 25. -- Re-signed with Panthers (1 year)
Nate Chandler, OT, Panthers. Age: 27. -- Signed with Bears